Who’s the ace of the 2014 Giants? Cain, of course.
Here is where we pause to give the good many of you so inclined to click “write new mail” and consider how blue your language should be in pointing out the lunacy in my logic. Address it to email@example.com, then actually simmer down, Duke, and hear me out.
Yes, virtually everything we’ve seen, know and profess to know suggests that this is the year MadBum officially claims the crown for which he’s been destined since that dominant four-game, late-season cup of joe back in 2009.
Yes, Cain last season appeared to be starting the inevitable regression that’s reasonably expected to sneak up on a staff workhorse who’s clocked an average of 200 or so innings for eight years.
And again: The former is 24, just entering his prime. The latter is 29, and while that’s an age that doesn’t exactly carry the immediate threat of fossilization, Cain got started a lot younger that most 29-year-old big-leaguers.
All good points in the case for MadBum as ace.
The problem is that they’re all just a little too tangible, too black and white. Pitching at the ace and big-league level, though, is about intangibles and gray.
Specifically, gray matter, as in what fills the space between the Oakley hooks, and how it processes all around it. This is why Cain, when it’s all said and done this season, will have — through his actions, not words — told MadBum and the rest of the baseball world that the crown he took from Tim Lincecum’s head a couple of years back will stay on his own dome until further notice.
Understand, now, that this isn’t to say MadBum doesn’t have off-the-charts intangibles or an extremely capable baseball mind. He does. I did a Giants Magazine piece on him last year that gave me the luxury of spending more one-on-one time with him than I’d ever come close to spending prior, and I was blown away by what he revealed of himself during those candid conversations.
He was reticent early in our time together, to be sure. He’s not the easiest nut to crack — slow to open and trust. That’s why a popular perception of him is as a relatively quiet and perhaps even simple country kid. Once he started to open up, however, he destroyed that perception with a passion, an understated eloquence, a sneakily dry and wicked sense of humor, and a purely and respectfully conveyed confidence that I so wish everyone who cares about the Giants could regularly access.
Cain is that way, too. They’re cut from very similar cloth, which explains why they’re very good friends. Cain, though, has been at the thrust-and-parry game with my type for far longer, so we’ve already seen some of the great qualities in him that remain hidden in the public MadBum.
So what — other than the very real value of experience — will enable Cain to keep his crown? Simple. It’s the same thing that allowed him to take Timmy’s. Whether he’ll ever admit it or not, and he won’t, Cain does not like being seen as No. 2 to anyone — especially when he knows he has the goods to be No. 1. And now that he’s actually been No. 1, he’s not going to easily relinquish that status.
It’s not an ego thing, either. It’s actually selfless in this case. Cain knows that MadBum doesn’t need the pressure that comes with being an ace. He knows that Timmy has enough pressure on him right now as it is. And, most important, he knows how empowering and comforting “Matt Cain: Ace” feels and sounds to his teammates.
The baseball season is a marathon, right? And a marathon is a race. The Giants’ horse ain’t ready to lose this one. Not just yet.
Mychael Urban has covered Bay Area sports for more than 22 years as a contributor to Comcast SportsNet, CSNBayArea.com, KNBR, MLB.com, ESPN The Magazine and various newspapers.